To the average passer-by, Uvalde County may seem indistinguishable from most areas of rural Texas, but botanist Bill Carr of The Nature Conservancy of Texas says nothing could be further from the truth.
Carr was the guest of SWTJC biology instructor Dr. Gabrielle Forbes on Nov. 2 when he gave a presentation on "What makes Uvalde County so special?"
According to Carr, Uvalde County is home to numerous rare plants, including several that rank high on a global listing of imperiled species.
Carr, who has inventoried more than 30,000 plant species during his career, said Uvalde has always been one of his favorite areas of Texas.
"The people are friendly and the botany is great," Carr said. "For me it doesn't get much better than that."
Using a slide presentation, Carr explained how the size of Texas and its varied physiography and geology are the main contributing factors in making it home to over 5,800 different plant species, including 311 found only in the Lone Star State.
Because of its location at the confluence of several geographical regions, Uvalde County is especially rich in a variety of unique plant life.
"I always kinda cringe when I use the word crossroads to describe an area," Carr said. "But Uvalde County really is a biological crossroads, with the Edwards Plateau to the north, the brush country to the south, the black land and oak wood prairies to the east and the Chihuahuan Desert to the west."
He noted that off the 311 endemic plants in Texas, nearly half of them are found in the Edwards Plateau and South Texas Brush Country regions, which come together in Uvalde County.
In addition to the rich plant life in the area, Carr recognized two noted botanists who have made major contributions to plant identification in the area.
"Besides having all this great plant life, Uvalde County has had two highly respected botanists, Charles Wright and Toney Keeney, study and document the area's plants," Carr said. "These guys are two of our heroes."
According to Carr, Wright spent the summer of 1849 identifying and collecting plants in Uvalde County. He traveled through Uvalde with troops moving from the Rio Grande Valley all the way to El Paso, conducting a botanical expedition secured by Harvard professor Asa Gray, considered the most important American botanist of the 19th century. Wright eventually sent to Gray a collection of some 1,400 species collected in his 673-mile walk across Texas.
Keeney was a biology instructor at SWTJC from 1967-2000. Along with his students, Keeney collected, pressed and dried over 14,000 plant specimens currently found in The Toney Keeney Herbarium on the Uvalde campus. During his career, Keeney worked in collaboration with many botanists and taxonomists in Texas and across the southern U.S., including Dr. William F. Mahler and Barney Lipscomb at the SMU Herbarium in Dallas which in 1987 became part of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) collection in Fort Worth.
In addition to his plant collection and teaching, Keeney initiated recovery plans for two endangered plant species in South Texas – Texas Snowbells (Styrax texana) and Tobusch Fishhook Cactus (Anistrocactus tobuschii) – with Paul Cox and Patty Leslie Pasztor of the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, and Jackie Poole of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After recognizing the contributions of Wright and Keeney, Carr showed slides and discussed distinguishing characteristics of some of the rare plants found in Uvalde County including the Tobusch fish-hook cactus, bracted twistflower, hairy sycamore-leaf snowbells, scarlet leatherflower, Texas amorpha and canyon mock-orange.
Carr also showed slides of Texas greasebush and Sabinal prairie-clover, two plants found in Uvalde County ranked G1, which means there are less than six occurrences known globally. These plants are considered critically imperiled and especially vulnerable to extinction.
According to Carr, the three biggest factors contributing to declines in plant species are suburban development, invasive exotic species and high stocking rates.
"In recent years, I have seen a steadily growing interest in plant conservation," Carr said. "Used to be we had to beg our way on to ranches across the state, but now we get more invites than we can handle."
Students from SWTJC biology classes and the wildlife management program made up most of the crowd attending the recent presentation. SWTJC faculty members and officials from the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center were also in attendance.
Carr concluded his presentation with a challenge to his audience. "The last sighting of the Sabinal prairie clover was in the 1950s, but we know it's still out there and I challenge you to get out there and find it," Carr said.
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